I remember the first time I truly struggled with depression and anxiety. It was my sophomore year of college, and I learned that a chunk of my financial aid was being taken away–and that my school was increasing its tuition by 10%. As I was attending a private university, this meant, in sum total, that I would be going into three times as much debt as I had planned on to complete my degree. I looked into transferring out, but all of the colleges I was interested in were doing the same thing. Regardless of where I attended, the bottom line was the same, and I was unwilling to give up a college education.
The anxiety set in.
This is not the only thing that triggered the fundamental problem. There is no One Event that results in anxiety and depression. My least favorite question in the world is, “What caused it?” There is no simple answer. While I can point to the straw, the camel’s back was buckling already under an invisible weight. Depression and anxiety are common in my family. I put a lot (and I mean A LOT) of pressure on myself to perform academically (ever see what happens to a 4.0 student who gets their first B? It’s not pretty). I had body image issues with being overweight. I was unsure of my major. I was committed to a fringe religion and had my first real brushes with discrimination in the last year. My brother had graduated college, and suddenly the neat little track we were promised in public school education dropped out from underneath him–get a degree, get a job was no longer a promise in the economic climate we were entering in our post-graduate lives. The future looked grim.
But does any of this point to a “cause” for depression?
No. We can only conjecture. Mental health is a tricky beast. We operate with what limited understanding we have of the human brain and nervous system, but we have hardly uncovered all of its secrets. Some mental health seems to be affected by hormones, neurotransmitters, and other chemicals–others seem to be conditioning and training, even physical abnormalities in the nervous system. Taking a more esoteric look at it we can make an argument for the effect of energy: positive ions vs negative ions, crystalline vibration dissonance (such as wearing hematite ALL THE TIME), chakra imbalances, psychic vampirism, etc. Who is to say where the truth lies? We can only do more and more research until we have the answers.
What do we do in the mean time?
I also remember when I first got treated. I had an amazing, and I do mean AMAZING, counselor at college. She was in the graduate program, and she was not only able to help me process my disordered thinking, but she gave me the tools I needed to manage my anxiety. However, as the depression and anxiety both were developing over a long period of time, there was also a chemical component, and together we made the decision to seek pharmacological help.
I was worried.
Well, I was a First Degree initiate in my tradition. I was working toward my Second Degree, and I eventually wanted my Third when the time was right. Plus, Wicca has a reputation for being crunchy-granola: if it isn’t 100% natural, it isn’t 100% Wiccan. Herbs? Awesome. Candles? Excellent. Crystals? Oo powerful shiny rocks.
POISON. BIG PHARMA. ALERT, ALERT! HYPOCRITE! PLAY-GAN! SHE’S A WITCH, PAWN OF SATAN, BUR–oh, wait, that’s actually OK.
Somehow pharmacological treatment for mental health has become demonized across the board. Not only is there stigma in the general population, but even the Pagan population seems to have its nose in the air because Lexapro isn’t “natural.” Somehow St. John’s Wort is acceptable because it grows outside, even though there is no knowing the potency of any particular supplement even if it is home grown, but Prozac is unacceptable because it was developed in a lab.
I don’t know, I always felt a flask on a bunsen burner was a lot like a cauldron over a hearth fire.
Here’s the trick though: Everything is a chemical. Whether we create reactions in a lab (cauldron?) or it falls from the sky (acid rain?), it’s a chemical. As a Witch, as a healthcare practitioner, I care less about whether “we” created it vs. Mother Nature and more about whether it is effective with acceptable side effects.
Side Note: Everything has side effects. If anyone tells you it has no side effects, they are lying. Herbs have side effects, tea has side effects, pills have side effects, food has side effects. The trick is whether the desired effect outweighs the consequences of the undesired effects. Balance. Crops up in everything.
So why not take a pill if that’s what’s going to help?
I asked my High Priest at the time. I was worried I could no longer practice Wicca. In my defense, I was 19. I didn’t know all of the “rules.” I also didn’t know if taking a pill would affect my ability to practice magick–would it block me? Specifically I was taking Lexapro, which is an anti-anxiety medication. In my experience it helped to even me out–I was neither super sad nor super happy, I was “numb” but it was such blessed relief from the anxiety that I appreciated the way it made me feel because it gave me the freedom to make the non pharmacological tools work, to focus on the habits and skills I would need when I was ready to come off of the Lexapro. There was worry though–I was numb. So much of my experience of magick was being able to feel the energy, which has an emotional component to it. He had given us, his students, a series of energy-based exercises to work on, and I was worried I wouldn’t be able to do them.
I remember his response. In fact, I think I have it printed out somewhere…ah yes, here:
Friday, September 30, 2005
Merry Meet Ariawn*,
Just a quick note. I’m glad you’re ok and I suspect what I was feeling was the difficulty you were having re: anxiety, etc. Not to worry, prescribed medications won’t have any effect on your ability to function. if a condition were one of psychosis or you needed them to function at all, it might be a concern, but you aren’t in that category. I would only be concerned about the use of “non prescribed” sorts of medications. While we have a history of these things being part of our culture we no longer condone their use.
I’m glad to hear you’re doing well in school (though I’m not surprised). Thanks for answering so quickly and Goddess protect you always.
Love and Blessings,
*Names changed from given to Craft to protect identities.
I remember being in awe that he could so quickly without further questioning accept and support my use of prescription medication for anxiety. Now, I am aware that not everyone will agree with everything he said as there is much evidence to support “non prescription” sorts of medications (i.e., he was talking about marijuana in case that wasn’t clear) for treating anxiety, but the underlying concept I am trying to get across is there: Prescription medication in itself will not cause a person to not be able to do the exercises, to do the magick, to function. Magick as functioning.
If anything, what I learned was that practicing Wicca helped with my anxiety and depression. Many of the tools I was given were akin to what I did in my practice, I just had to alter them to suit my needs. For instance, rhythmic breathing helps to trick your nervous system out of fight or flight, which is essentially where the feelings of anxiety stem from. Rhythmic breathing is also something we use for meditation and to induce altered consciousness for magick. My counselor also encouraged me to write letters to help purge my emotions–much as we might write out a spell and burn it to release its energy. She encouraged me to develop routines–what are routines but mundane rituals? And of course balance, speaking of life as a wheel where each component is a spoke, but if the spokes are uneven, the wheel has a hard time turning against the ground, and developing ways to rebalance each of the spokes.
Wicca helped me with my anxiety and depression. Did it “cure” it? Well, no. I don’t really think there is a “cure” but you can find peace and balance again. Wicca, and my counselor, and Lexapro, helped me to find that balance, taught me how to maintain it, how to recognize when the imbalance was happening again, and how to stop it in its tracks. And as I am human and sometimes fail at this, Wicca has also given me a support system to help point me back on the right track. The support of my family, my friends, are invaluable.
I do wish we could clear up depression like an infection. “Oops, looks like you have a serious case of depression going on, with a secondary infection of anxiety. 10 days of this anti-depressive medication and 5 days of this anti-anxiety balm should fix it in a jiffy. Call me in two to three days if you don’t see any improvement or you spike a fever.” Perhaps one day we will be able to isolate a “depression virus” and develop a vaccine–which I sincerely hope will be packaged with smiley-face stickers.
Until, then, though, know that you have numerous tools at your disposal and the support of many like yourself to help you through this. There are counselors, doctors, friends, family, other Wiccans, medications, and methods to help you to manage and improve how you are feeling. And you are worth it. And you are loved. And you are wanted.